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Winter Moisture Helping Ease Drought Conditions

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TECUMSEH, Okla. (AP) Central Oklahoma cattle rancher David Turner lost one cow last summer when it became stranded in the mud of a drought-shriveled pond.

Months later, he watched a wind-whipped wildfire blaze across a pasture on his ranch in Pottawatomie County.

Yet Turner considers himself one of the luckier ranchers in the state, which is one of several across the country parched from a lingering drought that has hit cattlemen particularly hard.

"We had enough hay to get through the winter -- a lot of people weren't that fortunate," said Turner, 62, while a handful of registered Angus cattle grazed outside his living room window. "But we were at the point of possibly liquidating (the herd) because of water issues."

Some recent moisture has resulted in guarded optimism among producers in Oklahoma and northern Texas, but experts say there is still a long way to go before the drought is behind them.

In February 2006, the entire state of Oklahoma was in various stages of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Currently, about 50 percent of the state falls into the drought condition category, but problems still remain, said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

"I would say Oklahoma could consider themselves still in the recovery phase," Fuchs said. "They've been in a pretty significant drought situation, and they're continuing to recover."

Other parts of the country, however, continue to wither under exceptionally severe drought conditions.

The most hard-hit regions are south central Texas, a wide swathe of central and eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska, and portions of the upper Midwest, including Minnesota, northern Michigan and the Dakotas.

Now, officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say a La Nina weather pattern is brewing that typically means less rain and more heat for the South and a dry fall for the central plains states.

In Oklahoma, where the parched earth has absorbed what little moisture has fallen in recent months, water levels remain dangerously low at lakes and streams across the state, said Derek Smithee, water quality chief at the Oklahoma Water Resources Board.

"The crystal ball is pretty hard to read, but if we don't get some rain and some water flows into our reservoirs, this year will be tough," Smithee said. "If we continue to see reductions ...we'll start to see some real problems."

As lakes and reservoirs shrink, dangerous algae blooms and fish kills can result in the oxygen-starved water that gets overloaded with nutrients, Smithee said. For reservoirs that serve as municipal water sources, that can lead to taste and odor problems and water that harms aquatic life and poses threats to human health, he said.

For ranchers, drought conditions lead to a lack of drinking water for cattle, less pasture land for grazing and less hay to make it through the winter. A 2006 study by the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture showed the state was 60 percent below the previous year in hay stocks, leading to shortages and high prices, said department spokesman Jack Carson.

"That leaves ranchers with three choices: you can sell the cattle, move the cattle to where the water is located or you can haul water to the cattle," said Carson, whose family also raises cattle. "We figured the ponds are going dry and the hay is going to be too expensive, so we just made the decision to go ahead and sell them."

The decision by many cattlemen to sell their herds simply because they didn't have the food supplies to maintain them could have long-term impacts on the state's cattle industry, even if drought conditions do improve, said Derrell Peel, a livestock marketing specialist at Oklahoma State University.

"Even if we have a normal year this year, it's going to take another year or two to get back up to where we were," Peel said. "The industry as a whole has been trying to grow, and the drought really has interrupted that growth."

For cattlemen, like Turner, that means cows that might normally give birth in the spring aren't bearing young until the fall, slowing the growth of his herd.

"There are some cows out here in this area that are very, very thin and won't calf at all," Turner said.

But in Pottawatomie County, some recent winter moisture has Turner holding out optimism that things will turn around in 2007.

"I was out raking hay the other day, and I caught myself whistling and singing to the radio," Turner said. "But we're not out of the woods yet."
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